ORLANDO – For each of the past four seasons, the dynastic Golden State Warriors have led the NBA in third-quarter scoring, usually using that 12-minute stretch in the guts of the game to break the collective will of their opponents.
The Orlando Magic looked to be the Warriors’ latest victims on Thursday when they saw a seemingly safe halftime lead devolve into a soul-crushing nine-point deficit following an avalanche of Stephen Curry jump shots.
However, what the Warriors might have underestimated – all the way from the start of the night when they decided to hold out superstar forward Kevin Durant for rest purposes – was that there is a new resiliency, toughness and belief with this Magic team that they are never out of a game.
Down as much as 13 points early in the final period, Orlando cobbled together a fourth-quarter performance for the ages much to the delight of a raucous, sell-out crowd of 18,846 that throbbed with raw emotion. The Magic used a stirring 10-0 run late in the night and got a clutch, go-ahead 3-point shot from Aaron Gordon for an exhilarating 103-96 defeat of the NBA champions from three of the past four seasons.
``We know that we can fight back, and the more that we play at a standard and with a level of consistency, the better it’s going to be for us down the stretch (of games),’’ said Gordon, who scored nine of his 22 points in the fourth quarter. ``We’ve got a lot of playmakers on this team. That’s what it comes down to – at the end of the game, people have to step up and make plays and we had a lot of people doing that.’’
Remarkably, Orlando (29-34) weathered a 30-11 third-quarter assault by Golden State (43-19) and responded with a 33-15 burst in the fourth. That clutch run allowed the Magic to end an 11-game losing streak to Golden State that stretched back to Dec. 14, 2012. According to ESPN Stats and Info, the Warriors had won 53 games in a row in which they opened the fourth quarter with a double-digit lead – a streak that ended on Thursday.
Things were different this time around because of the way the Magic hung tough after the disastrous third quarter and thrived in the tense moments of the fourth. They made 12 of 21 shots over the final 12 minutes, while Golden State hit just seven of 22. Curry, Golden State’s two-time MVP who finished with 33 points, made just one of six field goals in the fourth quarter.
``These are kind of like mini lessons for when we get to the playoffs,’’ said shooting guard Terrence Ross, whose Magic moved into a tie for the No. 8 spot in the Eastern Conference with Thursday’s victory. ``That’s what (the Warriors) do; they do that to everybody (in the third quarter). … Having that resiliency helped and it kind of gave us life in the fourth. No matter how much we’re down or how much the other team is on a run, we stay in the fight.’’
Ross, Orlando’s best reserve all season, scored 11 of his 16 points in the fourth quarter. The Magic have now won seven times this season when going into the fourth quarter either behind or tied – the third-highest such total in the NBA. That’s a serious sign of growth, Ross said.
``It’s moments like these that we grow,’’ said Ross, who had three 3-pointers in the final period to jump-start the rally – much the same way he did earlier in the season against Philadelphia and Indiana. ``In those close games, when we’re up by a few points and we get that crucial rebound or make a good defensive play, those are the thing that help to mature a team and I think we’re doing it more and more. We’re taking steps in the right direction.’’
Gordon, who grew up in San Jose, Calif., notched the first victory of his five-year NBA career over a Warriors franchise he watched as a child. D.J. Augustin scored 14 points and twice blocked Curry’s 3-point shots. Nikola Vucevic had 12 points, 13 rebounds and six assists, while Jonathan Isaac added 12 points.
DeMarcus Cousins and Klay Thompson scored 21 for the Warriors, which shot just 40.2 percent and made only nine of 40 3-point shots in the game.
Isaiah Briscoe, who wasn’t cleared to return from the NBA’s Concussion Protocol until about 90 minutes prior to tipoff, set a career high for rebounds (nine), while also contributing eight points, two assists and a blocked shot. Head coach Steve Clifford credited Briscoe for helping swing the momentum of the game with his gritty play early in the fourth quarter.
``He’s tough, he’s quick, he can stay square and in front of the ball and his physicality is a big thing,’’ Clifford said of Briscoe, who remarkably had as many or more fourth-quarter field goals (two) than Curry (one) or Thompson (two).
Orlando was playing just two nights after one of its worst losses of the season – a 108-103 defeat in New York against the rebuilding Knicks. In the four games since the NBA all-star break, the Magic have beaten two of the NBA’s top teams (Golden State and Toronto) and lost to two of the worst (New York and Chicago).
Joked Magic guard Evan Fournier, who was playfully jabbing at his team’s hot-and-cold nature on: ``That’s the most Magic four-game stretch ever.’’
Golden State, meanwhile, was back at it less than 24 hours after losing in Miami when Heat guard Dwyane Wade banked in a prayer of a shot at the buzzer. In that game, the Warriors trailed by as much as 24 points before rallying back to take the lead late in the fourth period. But it came a price as Durant (39 minutes), Thompson (37 minutes) and Curry (34 minutes) were forced to play big minutes.
On Thursday, the Warriors were the ones coming unglued late in the night as the Magic seemingly made all the big plays down the stretch for the victory.
``It was a rough fourth quarter. We only scored, what, 15 points?’’ Curry said. ``We missed a lot of shots and we didn’t get any stops, so it’s a frustrating way to end considering how we finished in the third quarter. Pretty much in control of the game, so it’s a tough one.’’
Over the past 2½ weeks, the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors and Golden State chose to rest superstar small forwards Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard and Durant against the Magic. Orlando made Milwaukee and Toronto pay for those questionable personnel decisions and on Thursday the Magic showed the Warriors that they are no longer a team to be taken lightly.
Golden State coach Steve Kerr, who has talked extensively all season about to toll of going deep into the playoffs each of the past four seasons has taken on his team, wanted to use the Warriors’ two games in Florida to get some of his players some rest. The team held DeMarcus Cousins (load management) out on Wednesday and Durant (rest) and Andre Iguodala (illness) were kept out Thursday.
``He’s just wiped out, tired and he’s been going at it hard and playing every game,’’ Kerr said of Durant, who missed his first game of the season after playing in the first 61.
Durant broke the Magic’s hearts back in November when he scored 49 points to lead the Warriors back from 19 down for a win in Oakland. This time, it would be Magic executing nearly flawlessly down the stretch – even after a rocky third quarter.
Up 59-51 after a solid first-half of play, Orlando came completely unraveled. After the Magic made just five of 23 shots and turned the ball over four times in the third, allowing Golden State to outscore them 30-11, they found themselves in a daunting 80-71 hole heading in the fourth quarter.
``Stay with it, man. Don’t change nothing,’’ Ross said when asked what was said among players between the end of the disastrous third quarter and the start of the fourth period. ``We’ve got a solid (style) that works for us and we have to stay with it, whether they’re making 40-foot shots, layups, backdoors or whatever.’’
In the fourth, Ross knotted the game at 89 with 4:20 to play with a 3-pointer. Then, with the Magic staring up at a 94-92 deficit and 1:41 to play, Gordon drilled a straight-on 3-pointer that gave them a lead they would not surrender. For good measure, in the final minute, Gordon soared for a tip-in basket that sealed the victory as the crowd roared.
Fournier, who is in his fifth season with the Magic, reveled in the moment on Thursday as his team rallied from dire circumstances and won a game it likely would have lost by a lopsided score in years past. He is encouraged about his team’s odds of making the playoffs by of the resiliency being shown.
``It feels like we like to be down, I don’t know,’’ Fournier said of Orlando’s seventh win this season after trailing following three quarters of play. ``Tonight was really all about fighting because we were down big against these guys and it’s really hard to get the lead back against them. But we stayed with it, played hard and guys stepped up to get a big win for us.’’
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